© 2018 by Altaf Qadri / All rights reserved

Looking For Hope

Someday, the family says, the 7-year-old will save them.

“I’ll fight,” his mother said when her husband insisted the boy had to start working. She vowed Farmaan would stay in school, no matter what.

More than 20 years ago, Ruby Khan and her husband Nisar came to New Delhi, hoping to find work and some sort of future in one of India’s biggest cities. They were desperately poor and uneducated. Ruby made it only through fifth grade and Nisar never went to school at all, though he picked up basic reading and math skills over the years. Plus, his legs have been weak and twisted for as long as he remembers, and the barrel-chested man in his early 40s needs a home-made wheelchair to get around. When his parents died, he says, his siblings forced him and his wife to leave the family home, a few hours south of here.

So they came to New Delhi. What they found was a life on the fringes, living in a squatter colony in the shadow of the city’s towering main mosque. The parents and their five children survive mostly from Ruby’s begging, though their two oldest sons get occasional work as laborers.

Their home - if that’s what you want to call it - is mounted on cheap bicycle wheels.

City authorities regularly clear out the squatter camp and often destroy whatever they find. Because of that, many of the Khans sleep every night on a wooden fruit-vendor’s cart the size of a large door, with the rest squeezing under a plastic tarp tied to a nearby wall. If the authorities arrive, the family can quickly pile everything they own _ clothes, blankets, birth certificates, bags of whatever _ onto the cart and roll it away.

“We are hounded every day,” Nisar says on a drizzly winter afternoon, a disheveled man in a dirty polyester coat who still manages, somehow, to look courtly. “Even dogs live better than us.”

The family rarely has more than a couple dollars between them. The oldest son, Armaan, dropped out of school to try to find work. The middle son, 13-year-old Ajmeri, dropped out when he was bullied because of a speech impediment. Neither works very often. The oldest daughter, 16-year-old Mahandi, often spends her days helping out at a makeshift school for homeless children, but earns no pay. The youngest daughter is just three months old.

So all hope rests on Farmaan, a 7-year-old with enormous eyes and scraggly hair. Farmaan was the son Ruby defended when her husband tried insisting he leave school to beg. In a family where education was rarely even an afterthought, Farmaan has always loved school. Asked on a recent day what he’d learned in class, Farmaan happily listed all his lessons. Then, for good measure, he recited the alphabet forward and backward.

He hasn’t done much in his short life. But simply by staying in school he’s become the focus of the family’s dreams. Both parents do their best to help him with homework, and Nisar now agrees that Farmaan shouldn’t start working, at least not yet. Together, Farmaan’s parents have mapped out his future: high school graduation, a job, money.

“He has to make something of himself first,” Ruby says. “Then he can take care of us.”